Tess Alps is the foremost champion of the television commercial. Over the past six years, she and her able confederates at Thinkbox have crusaded against the idea that TV is a spent force. It’s been a tough fight. The conviction that television will inevitably give way to the internet has been pervasive for much of the last decade, but it says much for the excellence of Thinkbox’s lobbying that commercial broadcasters are in ruder health than any of the doomy soothsayers have predicted.
It’s a battle that has to be fought again and again. In part, this is because the greatest fear of those who work in the advertising industry is that they’ll be left behind if they don’t pay attention to new possibilities and this can make them dismissive of the tried and the tested. But using a combination of persuasive charm, intelligent analysis and a dog called Harvey, Thinkbox is continually tackling those heretically claiming that TV is a dying medium.
Its campaign has been so successful that it’s almost as if advertising and television have renewed their vows... with Tess Alps officiating at the ceremony.
It’s a surprise, then, to learn that she came rather late to a love for commercials and “only started working in the advertising industry by accident”. Newly married with a postgraduate drama degree in her back pocket, Alps took a temporary job as an accounts assistant at ATV and was as surprised as anyone to find herself still working in the business eight years later: “I just got sucked in... and because I was working in television, I rationalised that I was doing some good because advertising could pay for wonderful programmes to be made.” For a long time, that was the only upside as far as she was concerned.
This disdain for advertising ended when Alps first saw the Guardian’s ‘Points Of View’ commercial in 1986. “There’d been lots of ads I quite liked but nothing that made me feel that this is a discipline that could change the world or that it was really, really important. For the first time, I realised that advertising can be used for more than selling toys and cosmetics.” ‘Points of View’ changed that. “It was a true Road to Damascus moment.”
She loved the way the commercial reflected the Guardian’s proposition: “If you had to describe the Scott Trust – who own the Guardian – and everything they stand for, it would be incredibly complicated and yet, in those three short scenes across just thirty seconds, it is made absolutely clear.
“It shows how brilliant advertising can be at distilling the essence of something. I remember the first time I saw it, it made me shiver and tears came to my eyes. Not because it’s sentimental, but because it made me angry about the misrepresentation found in other newspapers.”
As Alps was already a Guardian reader, ‘Points of View’ didn’t convert her to the newspaper, but she points out that advertising to your base is every bit as important as trying to win new custom.
“There’s a tendency to neglect existing customers – all brands seem to take them for granted – and this happens at all levels of corporate communication: banks seem to think they can just stuff a bit of paper in with your statement and imagine that this is good enough to create a relationship. It’s something we noticed at the Nike Facebook page where ‘fans’ were asking: ‘why haven’t they done an ad recently?’ People need their brand to be out there being brilliant.”
Her second selection is a commercial for Barclaycard featuring Rowan Atkinson as inept spy Richard Latham. “One of the things I love about the best TV ads is brilliant dialogue and I think it’s something
we’re losing a bit. The Barclaycard campaign was amazing because it managed to create these stand-out characters in instalments that were no longer than a minute. It’s incredible to me that an ad managed to create characters that are so striking and unforgettable that they’ve managed to launch two feature films on the back of them.”
Asked about commercials that are really just pieces of entertainment, Alps ackowledges that it’s not always easy for clients to recognise their value: “Advertising agencies have sometimes had to work very hard over to persuade clients that it’s worth spending five million quid creating something that’s just about being liked. I saw the former Tesco boss Terry Leahy speak at an event and afterwards someone asked him: ‘why on earth do you spend so much money on advertising?’ and his answer was simple: ‘it’s just to make people like us a bit more’.”
“It’s always been difficult to prove the link between TV advertising that’s not asking you to do anything – that’s very soft, that’s brand building – and ultimate financial outcome. That’s partly why we work so closely with the IPA on the Effectiveness Awards – without proper analysis, TV advertising is very exposed – but thankfully it’s getting easier to prove this link all the time. One advertiser recently told us that every quarter per cent increase in their ‘likeability’ led to something like a £15m increase in their profit.”
She points out that the Barclaycard commercials highlight the “wonderful cross-fertilisation between commercials and programming” – the Rowan Atkinson ads were directed by John Lloyd, who had worked with the comedian on both ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘Blackadder’. “Many of my actor friends say that it’s only because of voiceover work that they’re able to perform at the National Theatre for six weeks at three hundred quid a week... so I think the advertising industry is a huge, silent and unrecognised subsidiser of the creative industry generally.”
There’s further evidence of this crossover in Alps’s third selection. It’s a scene from ‘Green Wing’ in which Mac (Julian Rhind-Tutt), Guy (Stephen Mangan) and Caroline (Tamsin Greig) are playing a game in the operating theatre as they perform surgery – a typically irreverent moment from the award-winning series created, co-written and directed by Victoria Pile. “I love the surreal notion of surgeons pissing about over a body that’s been cut open and playing stupid games – I think it’s genius.”
Alps’s next selection is the Tango Blackcurrant’s ‘St George’ commercial from 1997. Even though it was only broadcast on a handful of occasions, the film – featuring an angry Englishman called Ray Gardner challenging a French student to a fight atop the white cliffs of Dover – has achieved cult status.
“I absolutely love it because it’s a brilliant script... obviously it’s not a single continuous shot but I can’t see the joins... it’s a form of comic exaggeration that’s the British do brilliantly; and it’s just magical when the fighter jets fly over at the end. Obviously it’s very funny but what it tells me is that these are people who really care about their brand.”
This ad has a special place in Tess Alps’s heart because it almost formed the basis of Thinkbox’s first television commercial: “We decided that what we’d love to make our own version of St George. It would open with me saying something like: ‘Steve Henry’s written something shit in Campaign’ and then I’d march through the offices taking my clothes off and end up being passionate about TV advertising in a boxing ring.”
She laughs uproariously at the suggestion she might have constructed her whole career in a search for this one moment of supreme theatricality.
Alps describes the process of making Thinkbox’s first television commercial as “painful and not as easy as you think it should be”. The success of its ads, especially those featuring Harvey the dog, may ultimately have provided succour but some of the rewards are double-edged: “When you create a social media presence, you feed an expectation among a small group of consumers that you’re going to be permanently talking to them and feeding them new content. Harvey’s Facebook ‘fans’ send us pictures of their dogs; their dogs ‘doing’ the ad, and some of them nag us when we haven’t done anything for a while. The real devotees are maybe 800 people and I’m not saying they aren’t important – they are – but the disproportionate effort it takes to keep them happy is exhausting.”
There’s a sheen across Tess Alps’s eyes as she describes her second non-advertising selection – the dream sequence from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1945 release ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ which Alps describes as “the most romantic film ever. I love all of Powell and Pressburger but I particularly love that one.”
What Alps admires about the Honda ‘Skydiving’ commercial that was broadcast live on Channel 4 was its bravery: “the sheer audacity of jumping out of a blooming plane... live! I’m just amazed at the balls of Ian Armstrong – the guy at Honda who backed this. And the very real danger of the stunt was underlined the next day when the plane they used for the live ad crashed, killing the pilot and a skydiver.”
Her final selection is the 2008 122-second commercial for Hovis which offered a potted history of Britain over the 122 years of the brand’s existence.
Hovis was in the doldrums when the decision was taken to revive the brand by making this spectacular film, and it worked because it caught the public’s imagination and enough of them started buying the bread again to make a difference. The success of this ad perfectly encapsulates Thinkbox’s core message – that television is still advertising’s best bet.
Alps's final selection is Google's 'Parisian Love' in which the search engine assists a pair of lovers divided by the Atlantic Ocean. "It brilliantly demonstrates what the product can do for people... and it proves that you don't have to spend a million dollars to make a great piece of advertising." Some people thought Thinkbox should be a bit snide about such a significant online company opting to advertise on television but Alps doesn't see it that way. For her, Google's decision simply made sense.
It’s apt that Thinkbox’s Pimlico offices should be located in a building named after Henry Manning – a 19th century cleric who gave up a senior role in the newfangled Church of England to place his faith in an older creed – Catholicism. Especially as his lasting legacy was the network of schools he helped to establish after he was elevated to Cardinal following his conversion.
Manning’s recognition that education was the key to maintaining the potency of his church is echoed by Thinkbox’s efforts to spread its own gospel. With Alps at the helm, the organisation has consistently sown its message about television’s continuing viability... and with Harvey on board, Thinkbox’s evangelical doggedness looks set to continue operating on two different but equally effective levels.